We Catholics have a problem. Everywhere we look, we see apparent cases of faith clashing with reason. Whether it’s Ken Ham and Bill Nye arguing over evolution, or New Atheists like Richard Dawkins waging a relentless war on religion, everything we see seems to reinforce the narrative that faith and reason are opposing and incompatible forces.

Now, for some people this isn’t a problem. Some will just shrug their shoulders: doesn’t this just prove that we should abandon faith in favor of reason? On the other extreme, certain Christians will say: well, that just goes to show that you can’t trust reason.

The Catholic Church, on the other hand, asserts that faith and reason are compatible. Now, based on what we see around us, this is a gutsy claim. Doesn’t everyday experience suggest the contrary?

Initially, this problem might seem impossible to resolve. However, the view that faith and reason are incompatible is largely based on imprecise language. Many people use “faith” and “reason” in confused and ambiguous ways, which causes them to misunderstand what Catholics mean.

True and False Reason

Let’s start with reason. Imagine a high school algebra class. The teacher assigns a really tough problem, and the kids get to work trying to solve it. How do they proceed? Well, they use their reason. But ten minutes later, when the teacher checks their work, it turns out that half the kids got the wrong answer.

What went wrong? Is reason unreliable? Were half the kids only pretending to use their reason?

Probably not. Even though all the kids tried to reason through the problem, some of them reasoned rightly and others reasoned wrongly. The kids who reasoned rightly got the right answer, and the kids who reasoned wrongly got the wrong one.

Writing Exams by ccarlstead
Writing Exams by ccarlstead

So if we want to be specific, we can’t just talk about “reason.” Rather, we have to distinguish between true reason and false reason. Both kinds involve “reasoning,” but only true reason correctly obeys the rules of logic and leads us to the right answers.

True and False Faith

We can make a similar distinction between true and false faith.1 Christianity teaches that God has revealed truths to people, whether through prophets, apostles, or Christ Himself. However, most Christians recognize that many people have either falsely claimed to have divine revelation or have misinterpreted true revelation. Does someone have faith if they operate on false or misunderstood revelation? Well, yes and no. They have belief, but true faith as understood by Christian theology can only come from God. If it isn’t really from God, then it’s only an imitation of faith.

Imagine for a moment that God has decided to speak directly to Luke Skywalker and reveal that Darth Vader is his father. Now, if Luke trusts God’s word and believes it as true, then he has faith in God. However, if Luke, not liking this plot twist, decides to make up his own “divine revelation” and tell it to people, we would call this a departure from true faith.

So, in addition to true and false reason, we also have to distinguish between true and false faith. Just as false reason might look like it follows the rules of logic, but actually makes mistakes, false faith might look like it’s from God, but in reality it’s based on a misunderstanding or even a lie.

The Problem Revisited

Now that we’ve recognized this distinction, we can look at faith and reason in a new light. When the Catholic Church says that faith and reason are compatible, it’s talking about true faith and true reason. Both true faith and true reason are gifts of God meant to lead us to the truth, and as such they can never conflict.

But what about all the apparent conflicts between faith and reason? In each example, either false faith or false reason is the problem. For instance, creationists like Ken Ham, by essentially misinterpreting the Bible as a science textbook, are almost certainly relying on false faith. We have strong reasons2 to believe in the theory of evolution; thus, we have cause to be suspicious of any claim that God created the earth in a literal seven-day period. Here we have a conflict between false faith (Bible as science textbook) and true reason (evidence for evolution).

On the other extreme, we often find examples of false reasoning against true faith. For instance, the theory of evolution has often been used as a weapon against Catholics, on the assumption that it contradicts what we believe about creation and Scripture. This is a misunderstanding: Catholicism has never denied evolution. The Catholic Church has always taken the allegorical sense of Scripture into account, especially in cases where an overly literal reading seems implausible.3 The creation story in Genesis is an account of God’s grace and human sin, not a scientific account of the origin of species. Thus, just as the kids who got the math problem wrong misunderstood the rules of algebra, anyone who tries to use evolution against Catholicism misunderstands what Catholics believe.

Someone might object that there are many more cases apart from these where faith and reason seem to be in tension. Each of these cases should be approached individually; there are far too many for one article. However, the approach is the same in each instance: we have to ask, (1) is this an example of true or false reason? and (2) is it true or false faith? If we really apply the principles we’ve set out here, we’ll be able to understand that true faith and true reason can never conflict.

Faith and Reason Together

This harmony of faith and reason has been tirelessly defended by theologians and Church leaders since the dawn of Christianity. And for good reason: the cooperation between these two modes of knowing has allowed Catholics to have both a deep, trusting faith and a rich intellectual tradition. It’s a both/and, not an either/or.

On the side of reason, Catholics have engaged with the best of the secular tradition, whether it’s Justin Martyr’s classic defense4 of Christianity in the 2nd Century, or the famous debate5 between Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and philosopher Jurgen Habermas in the 20th. There’s an endless supply of serious Catholic thought that trades blows with the best the secular world has to offer.

Ratzinger and Habermas discussing the "dialectics of secularization"
Ratzinger and Habermas discussing the “dialectics of secularization”

But as strong as reason is, it’s incomplete without faith. There are truths about God and our relationship to Him that mere reason can’t supply. Because of this, God revealed Himself through Christ and preserved that truth through the Church he founded. Faith, the “full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals,”6 is indispensable for the Christian life. Rather than contradicting reason, faith goes beyond it and completes it.

This, then, is why we need both faith and reason. True faith and true reason, both being gifts of God, can only lead us to the truth. Both are indispensable: faith to reveal what goes beyond human intellectual capacities, and reason to explain and defend what we believe. Far from being contradictory, faith and reason are two pillars indispensable in our quest to know God. Only when they are taken together as a coherent whole can we attain truth in its fullness.

  1. Faith, for our purposes, will be defined as the “virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us” (CCC 1814).
  2. For a brief overview of those reasons, check here.
  3. The allegorical is one of the four senses of scripture as traditionally understood in Catholicism. The “literal” sense is always present as well, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “literally, historically true,” but rather refers to the most immediate meaning the scriptural writer was trying to convey. In this sense, even the parables of Jesus are “literal.” For more information on this, check out the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a helpful guide to Catholic teaching: CCC 115-119
  4. Mainly, his First and Second Apologies, which can be found here and here.
  5. This discussion on the “dialectics of secularization,” which took place in 2004, can be found here.
  6. Dei Verbum 5